The lady vanishes

paris civil recordsThe name Martha Babcock Greene Amory might not immediately resonate, but the lives of her immediate forebears are well-known to us today. She was born in Boston 15 November 1812, the daughter of Gardiner Greene and his third wife, Elizabeth Clarke Copley. Mrs. Greene was the daughter of John Singleton Copley, the well-known American painter, and his wife Susannah Farnum Clarke; she was the granddaughter of Richard Clarke, whose consignment of tea was thrown into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party. That’s a lot of history for just a couple of generations!

On 15 October 1832, Martha married Charles Amory, a mover and shaker in the financial and social circles of Boston. She then traveled abroad with him, and her letters to her mother of her experiences were published in 1922 as The Wedding Journey of Charles and Martha Babcock Amory, Letters of Mrs. Amory to Her Mother Mrs. Gardiner Greene, 1833-1834, Volume 1, France and Italy.

At the beginning of the book is a note authored by “D.B.U.” that indicates much of the above information, but also states that Martha died in Paris in January 1880 and her husband Charles died 18 years later. Given her illustrious family, one would assume that any information about her birth and death would have been accurately identified by some researcher in the past.

A recent Ask-a-Genealogist question about the death of Mrs. Amory mentioned another death date for her of 1879 in Paris and requested additional information. The reason for the question was that the researcher had located Martha, her husband Charles, and their son Copley residing in Boston as enumerated on 2 June 1880 in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census. If she truly was residing in Boston in June of 1880, then it is unlikely that she died in January 1880, as the book stated, or in 1879, as the researcher had found.

In searching for additional information on Martha, an entry for stated that she died in December of 1879. Again, based on the 1880 census this is not possible.

It is cases like this where, as researchers, we often assume a previous researcher – like the editor of the published Amory letters – has superior resources and we then neglect to look at, say, subsequent census records. Verification of Mrs. Amory’s actual death date in the records of Paris may not be something that someone would think of doing, especially if they are unfamiliar with record availability in France.

In the case of the vital records for the city of Paris, though, there are digitized indexes and records available through the Paris Archives.

The city of Paris is divided into 16 districts (les arrondissements). The digitized records are arranged by event (birth, marriage, and death) and by district. There are 10-year indexes for each district for each event. After using these and locating the correct entry, it is possible for the researcher to then turn to the actual records (actes) and view the original record.

As a result of these online records, the death date of Martha Babcock Greene Amory is no longer a mystery. She died in Paris 30 January 1881 and the event was recorded the next day: 31 January.

This is a classic example of how important it is to view the actual records, rather than taking the word of what appears to be an accurate published volume.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

6 thoughts on “The lady vanishes

  1. Bravo, Rhonda, for not giving up until you found Martha’s true death date! I had a similar issue with a grandfather’s birthyear. Family lore said he died on his 59th birthday, 11 October 1931, which would make him born in 1872, the same year his non-twin next younger brother was born. Biologically possible but highly unlikely in the days of universal breast-feeding. I kept digging until I found him in the 1870 census, a very much alive 8-month-old infant meaning he died on his 62nd birthday, not his 59th.

  2. I am so glad to read your point about using original sources, and not relying only on published books. They are great sources, but can have errors. Even though a “fact” has been printed, or posted in an on-line tree, or even carved in stone, the “fact” may be deliberately or accidentally in error. For so many on-line trees, the only source is someone else’s on-line tree. Taking time to find, read, and digest vital records, probate files, and census records can be so much more rewarding and helpful in learning the true family story. Blindly copying names from one family tree into another promotes the spread of errors, such as the South Carolina boy I’ve seen in several family trees, born into a very New England family 30 years after the next older child, and decades after his father died. Or the man from early 1700s Massachusetts who shows up on so many family trees with two concurrent wives and sets of children. (Two men with the same name married sisters – confusing but not an insurmountable puzzle.) Particularly when we are publishing we should take the time to properly document our sources. In addition, electronic sources (on-line trees or other websites) can and should change as more accurate records become available. It isn’t likely that someone who copies another person’s tree onto their own will go back and check to see if that source tree has been updated with more accurate information. Vital records are vital! Histories and biographies are good clues to direct researchers to those records. They shouldn’t be the sole source of information.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. You did a great job looking for & actually finding the documents to solve the mystery.

  4. Had the same issue with a great great grandfather. The actual burial card said he died in 1898, but I found him in a 1900 census very much alive. He actually died in 1901 in Denver. His body was interred with grandchildren (deceased prior) in NJ and the graves were reopened for his burial on top. The recorded “burial” date remains a mystery.

    1. Wow… I can only offer the possibility that the person setting the type for the burial cards had a “senior moment” (memory lapse) similar to the inaccuracies we’ve all found on tombstones. Precisely why secondary sources should not be considered…pun intended…carved in stone!

  5. Very true original sources from credible authors are very important to verify genealogy claims. Based on my personal experience, I always check my sources before I contribute at You don’t want to publish unverified data, although some published books have a margin of error, double check always ensure the credibility of the information and the research.

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